Hawaii Should Copy Sheriff Joe

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 28, 2006
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Joe Arpaio is the sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, and according to an Associated Press article in July 2003, and an overview of Arpaio websites, the people of Phoenix and the rest of the county just keep on electing him “over and over again.” He must be doing something right!

Well, you be the judge.

Prison overcrowding is no problem in Maricopa County, not since Sheriff Arpaio created his “Tent City Jail.” Nearly 2,000 inmates live in Korean War surplus tents within the razor-wired compound adjacent to the county jail. Obviously, air conditioning is nonexistent, so during the 100-plus degree summers Arpaio allows inmates to strip down to their “government-issued pink boxer shorts, and dry off with their pink towels to keep the sweat from running into their pink socks.” There’s your first clue that publicity prone Sheriff Joe doesn’t cotton to mainstream “corrections” philosophy.


In that regard, “he has jail meals down to 40 cents a serving and charges the inmates for them. He stopped smoking and porno magazines in his jail, and cut off all but ‘G’ rated movies,” which he augments with educational videos. He allows cable TV only because a federal court order requires it for jails, but restricts it to the Disney and weather channels. “He started chain gangs with black-and-white-striped uniforms so inmates could do free work on city and county projects, then did the same for women so he wouldn’t get sued for discrimination.” He beat the lawsuits that arose when he added teen offenders to the chain gangs. The “tough-guy” sheriff serves bologna sandwiches and makes the inmates wear pink underwear, and is totally unsym-pathetic to complaints about the rations and the heat.

“It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and our soldiers are living in tents and have to wear full battle gear, and they aren’t there for committing crimes, so shut your d-n mouths!”

Among Arpaio’s creations is “Hard Knocks High,” the country’s first accredited prison high school, which along with his anti-drug programs, tends to counter the “revolving door” syndrome. He insists upon nothing but healthy fare for both mind and body. When he cut out coffee and porno mags he told complaining inmates: “This isn’t the Ritz Carlton. If you don’t like it, don’t come back!”

“Don’t come back!” Isn’t that the point? Although Arpaio has his detractors, and his techniques may be controversial, philosophically they are right on the mark. Prison should be unpleasant, period! But that doesn’t mean “doin’ the time” can’t be a positive experience, the breaking of bad habits and the inculcation of good ones, for example. I know that to be true from personal experience. But the point is: What can Hawaii learn from this Arizona lawman?

For starters, we should be inspired to replicate Arpaio’s tent and barbed-wire jail right here on state-owned land at Barbers Point (Kalaeloa). Unlike the Maricopa desert, there are plenty of tree-shaded acres there, many adjacent to fixed facilities for administration, food preparation and medical needs. Hawaii’s agreeable climate would enable such a facility at an affordable price, alleviate the current overcrowding, and allow us to return some 400 Hawaii convicts from Mainland jails for hire. The millions of dollars going for their keep could then be redirected to facilities and programs that would enhance the effectiveness of our own corrections system.


Perhaps the most important benefit for Hawaii’s inmates and their future success would be the renewed accessibility to families and loved ones. Current research confirms the positive effects on inmates’attitudes, morale, and substance rehabilitation by having periodic access to family. A commendable example is a Maui program, “No Na Kamali’i,” which - over and above the allowable visits with wives and family - brings “selected” prison fathers together with their keiki periodically for activities and field trips. What a great incentive for prisoners to “earn” the right to family time by fulfilling their rehab requirements! Besides reducing recidivism rates, such programs could reverse statistical trends showing the propensity for off-spring to follow in dad’s footprints to prison.

Without further delay, the governor should task her director of Public Safety to pay a visit to Maricopa County, formulate a plan - not a feasibility study - to determine costs and means to actually implement such a project, and then present it to the Legislature for priority passage in ‘07.

We should take the best of Joe Arpaio’s creation, “Hawaiianize” it, and bring our inmates home. If it can work in Arizona, it can work even better here.

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